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How To Read Darwin

How To Read Darwin

Mark Ridley
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4.7 of 5
Biological Sciences
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Granta's new How to Read series is based on a very simple, but novel, idea. Most beginners' guides to great thinkers and writers offer either potted biographies or condensed summaries of their major works. How to Read, by contrast, brings the reader face to face with the writing itself in the company of an expert guide. Its
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2 Reviews
  • Few scientific ideas have succeeded so brilliantly and elegantly as Darwin’s theory of what he called “descent with modification” but which we know as evolution—least of all not in the wet and squishy sciences. Darwin realized that if a biologic system had three characteristics, one would end up seeing a wide variety of species, but with common characteristics such that one could discern how a species evolved from common ancestors. (BTW: this is invariably what we see in the world.) The three characteristics are: 1.) variation within the population (i.e. members aren’t carbon copies but have varying characteristics); 2.) inheritance (characteristics are passed from parent to child); and 3.) some individuals produce more offspring than others. Under such conditions, those with variations that allowed them to survive better in their particular environment would produce more children (i.e. natural selection.)

    Ridley’s book offers readers an outline of the work of Charles Darwin that’s more extensive than Cliffs Notes but less daunting than the original works written in mid-19th century prose. (Darwin is generally credited as being quite readable for a scientist of that era, but it’s still a large lump of work.) Of course, the book is presented not as an alternative to reading the three major works of Darwin addressed herein (i.e. “On the Origin of Species…,” “The Descent of Man…,” and “The Expression of Emotion…,”) but rather as a preparatory guide.

    The question arises as to why one should bother reading such a book if one intends to read Darwin anyway. One reason is to help put Darwin’s discoveries in the context of his time. For example, while Darwin knew of heredity, he didn’t have an understanding of genes and genetics. In other words, a neophyte looking back may not know where to put Darwin’s discoveries amid the important scientific ideas that came before and after. Another reason is to see how the critical claims that have arisen since Darwin’s time are dealt with. Darwin’s theory immediately came under attack (and has continued to) because it is inconsistent with the literal interpretations of most major religions’ creation myths, and, adding fuel to the fire, everything we learn has supported evolution to the detriment of creation myths.

    The book consists of ten chapters. The bulk of these chapters (Ch. 1 through 6) lay out the argument made in Darwin’s most influential work, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” These chapters explore what Darwin described as “one long argument” for natural selection, but in doing so address vital concepts like hybridism, biodiversity, and geological succession. These chapters also discuss the case for Evolution, and the charges that have been leveled against it.

    Chapters 7, 8, and 9 describe the ideas of Darwin’s “Descent of Man,” which examines both human evolution and sexual selection. The last chapter introduces the reader to the topic that Darwin took up in his 1872 book on “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.” This is an early look at what has continued to be an intriguing field of study, namely what is the evolutionary advantage of conveying emotion and why are we so good at reading other people—or, at least, capable of being good at it.

    This book is one in a series of brief summaries of the ideas of important scientists, philosophers, and influential (sometimes infamous) thinkers. Other volumes cover the works of Freud, Hitler, Nietzsche, the Marquis de Sade, Wittgenstein, Foucault, Heidegger, Jung, Marx, Derrida, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare.

    The book has no graphics and not much by way of ancillary matter. It does present a timeline of Darwin’s life and achievements, and has a “for further reading” section. Each of these features is just a couple pages.

    I found this book to be concise and readable. It’s only about 100 pages, and doesn’t get into supporting detail (that’s what reading the original work is for.) It does pull key paragraph length excerpts from the source material to discuss ideas in the modern context. I’d recommend this book for someone who intends to read Darwin, who has read Darwin but was left with a lack of clarity, or—even—someone who wants to understand the gist of the argument but doesn’t have time for hundreds of pages of 19th century prose.

  • The How to Read series is top notch. They are short, concise, offer excerpts at the beginning of every chapter, and they are written by highly qualified people who 'know their stuff.' This one is no different. Mark Ridley, professor of zoology at Oxford, gives a very thorough description and explanation of the broad strokes of Darwin's theory of natural selection and (as Darwin himself called it) 'descent with modification,' or as it is known today: evolution.

    He breaks the book down into composite parts, dealing with 'Origin of Species' for the first 6 chapters. He gives an overview of the 'Origin,' then proceeds to explain Darwin's ideas of (as mentioned above) natural selection, descent with modification, variation, hybridization, the fossil record, and the whole time, he discusses the 'theory of evolution' itself and its manifestations, a few scattered critiques, and nearly always comparing Darwin's notion in the mid-1800's with what evolutionary biologists believe today, finishing up the sixth chapter with what Darwin closes his own 'Origin' with, a succinct summary of the whole theory as Darwin outlined it, including a few hints again of what evolutionary biologists believe now by comparison.

    He then proceeds to discuss for 3 chapters 'The Descent of Man.' He deals in these chapters, respectively, with altruism, the extrapolation of natural selection to civilizations as a whole, and finally sexual selection.

    The final chapter is a discussion of the lesser known book 'The Expression the Emotions.' A quote from Ridley will be helpful here, I think: "Darwin has not been as influential in shaping modern thought on the emotions as has his theory of evolution in biology. But his principles...are still influential. People read 'The Expression of the Emotions' now more to see Darwin's unique, all-curious mind in action."

    Ridley also includes a bibliography of "further reading" for those that want to delve deeper into Darwin's thought as it has been expressed by some modern evolutionary biologists.

    One of the great things about this little book is that we are able to see this "unique, all-curious mind in action" from book to book, from theory to theory, from 'Origin' on through to 'Expression.' Darwin's ideas have shaped so much research and thought since the original publication of 'Origin' that to lack any familiarity is, I think, very unfortunate. If you need a good place to start, I highly recommend this book.